To emit: Abhay Deol, Pankaj Kapur, Piyush Mishra, Ritika Anand
Director: Shailender vyas
Classification: 2 stars (out of 5)
Time is conveniently flexible in JL50, a Sony LIV original series starring Abhay Deol and Pankaj Kapur. A character asks: What is today’s date? Another responds: It is August 3, 2019. No, it is 1984, insists the first. Although 35 years apart, the two dates are connected by a plane that disappears in the mid-1980s after taking off from Calcutta, as the city was then called, and crashes into a mountain somewhere north of Bengal three and a half decades later.
This mind-blowing fantasy flight unfortunately fails to find either a consistent channel of certainty or a firm landing strip. That, in a nutshell, is the fate of JL50, a science fiction adventure in which the what, how and where are completely overshadowed by when. In the deal, the whys and whys disappear without a trace.
Over the course of a lecture for his students, a mischievous physics teacher discards the received wisdom that time never stands still. “Apni poori zindagi physics ko dene ke baad I (have) realized … Time never moves. Time is always present,” he says before a CBI detective summons him from the classroom investigating the plane crash. The scientist had a seat on the flight but was rescued at the last minute. When asked why, he says he doesn’t remember anything.
Indian filmmakers and web program creators are not great at science fiction. Up to that point, JL50 it is a departure from the norm. But the advantage is wasted. The veneer of logic with which the series seeks to cover its central presumption does not last the course.
It is tempting to assume that the show’s Calcutta setting is a nod to Bengal science fiction literature tradition dating back to scientist Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose’s short story, Niruddesher Kahini (The story of a missing person), written in 1896.
At the center of that story is a potentially destructive cyclone moving toward Calcutta. It drifts just in time when a bottle of a certain brand of hair oil is poured into the ocean. Oil floats on rough waters, causes condensation and dampens the storm. There was science at the center of the story, albeit interpreted in a fictitious and ironic way. The fantastic jumps of JL50 They are driven primarily by hard-to-digest quirks.
Deol and Kapur, for their part, are right to not allow the inconsistencies around them to negatively affect their performances. Director of photography Bradley J. Struckel’s camera work is surprisingly fluid. But the show, created, written and directed by Shailender Vyas, swims in shallow water.
JL50 he’s too in love with his own hard strangeness for his own sake. What he needed, to keep the audience engaged in the strangely wired time-travel fantasy, was a script capable of sending coherent signals along his flight path.
After a brief prelude in which a plane’s shadow glides over a high-altitude soccer field before crashing off-camera, the show travels between Kolkata, where the story begins, and Kolkata, where it culminates, and weaves a story that is easier fiction than solid science.
Only two of the 40 people aboard the unfortunate plane survive. One of them is the pilot, a young woman (Ritika Anand); the other is a mysterious man who did not have to be in the cockpit when the plane went down. They both have stories rooted in the past.
CBI officer Shantanu (Deol) is deployed to get to the bottom of the mystery. The probe takes him to Professor Subrata Das (Kapur), a quantum physicist who has a secret up his sleeve and utters ‘but’ with the elongated vowel sound to tell us (in the most superficial way imaginable) how Bengali he is.
There are allusions to a movement for the liberation of Bengal (well, well!) And a puzzling scientific formula first devised in 623 BC. C. (during the reign of Emperor Ashoka, no less!). Once the line between the past (distant and not so distant) and the present is blurred, the show takes a nosedive.
It does not do justice to the inspiration it draws, if it does, from a pantheon that includes Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku, an inventor who appeared in 40 adventures from the 1960s until the filmmaker’s death; Ghanada by Premendra Mitra, a fantasy storyteller who got the kids excited with his stories of imaginary inventions and “scientific” breakthroughs; and Adrish Bardhan’s Professor Nutboltu Chakro (which translates to “a ring of nuts and bolts”). Neither Professor Subrata Das nor his grumpy mentor Biswajit Chandra Mitra (Piyush Mishra) are a patch on the aforementioned fictional figures.
Since the characters created by Ray and Mitra were aimed at young readers, they were benign gentlemen. It is not so the men of science in JL50. At least one of them is not averse to manipulating his knowledge for personal aggrandizement. He is the bad guy. The other, at first glance, gives the impression of being a voice of reason.
The past also weighs heavily on the individual CBI agent. In addition to a marriage that breaks down, the detective faces a mad scientist. The quiet researcher is told that his bete noire dimaag (brain) is gold but its dil (heart) is stone.
The scholar who guides the researcher through the maze is the one who contributes the most to the confusing verbiage. It supports the concept of space-time and wormholes. The detective, appropriately taken aback, agrees to accompany the older man because he has no other choice.
The lecturer, surprisingly and without warning, gets an amazing opinion in an irregular way. He tells Shantanu that the problem with us Indians is that we are brainwashed so easily that we cannot see past the Hindu-Muslims and mandir-masjid speech. That is why, he says, we fall prey to the politics promoted by andh-vishwas and not seeing the real benefits of possessing a scientific temperament.
When we spot a celestial phenomenon in the sky, explains the speaker, we look up with folded hands and turn it into a spectacle to demonstrate religious ardor. We don’t ask questions, he concludes. The teacher hits the spot. If only, the rest of JL50 I was. The show, not half as sharp as you think it is, doesn’t live up to its rational pretensions long enough for it to take effect.
Abhay Deol and Pankaj Kapur (the latter in particular) try very hard to keep their faces straight despite everything. As you can imagine, it is not easy for them or the audience.